There has been an epiphany at Meta that identifying new companies and copying their core features are no longer enough to prevent competitors from encroaching on their territory. But how did we get here?
When Meta revealed it was distancing itself from the algorithmic feed based on the people you follow to a feed full of recommendations made by AI, audiences were less than impressed. The most popular and active users quickly found their posts were no longer being shown to the followers they had built over the years. Elsewhere, ordinary users scrolled down their feeds to see Instagram had replaced pictures from their friends and followers with content from accounts they didn't follow.
However, problems quickly escalated when Instagram influencers took a stand against the platform's obsession with replicating the features of TikTok with Instagram Reels. A post by the @illumitati account captured the current mood and increasing frustrations with Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian, and others, all echoing the sentiments of the need to make Instagram Again and stop trying to be TikTok.
Instagram boss Adam Mosseri quickly posted a video addressing concerns but also warned that more and more of Instagram will become video over time. However, setting out a vision for the future where the world is changing quickly, and Instagram is going to need to evolve with it appeared to make the problem worse.
A leaked memo revealed that Facebook was also planning a discovery engine feed change and considering bringing Messenger back into the main Facebook app to help it compete with TikTok.
According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, in 2015, 71% of teens used Facebook. But in 2022, that number has come crashing down to 32%. In a digital world, it's YouTube and TikTok that have secured the attention of young users, and parent company Meta has an uphill struggle to stay relevant with younger audiences. Many TikTok users often mock Instagram Reel users for constantly being around two weeks behind the biggest trends and memes online.
It's easy to see why Meta believes the popular photo-sharing app is the best chance the company has of competing against the threat of TikTok. But sharing old trends and dead memes is making the platform look dangerously out of touch. Equally, revamping the platform is alienating its current users. Ironically, in trying to please everyone, they please no one, with Instagram users increasingly feeling that it hates photographers.
The problem for Mark Zukerberg is that the average TikTok user will spend more than 10 minutes per session, but Instagram is much closer to only three minutes. So despite its undoubted popularity, the photo-sharing platform is struggling to lock users into zombie-like endless scrolling behavior. But is that such a bad thing?
Stop manipulating audiences with algorithms
Big tech's obsession with winning the war of attention by revamping its algorithms has repeatedly hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and LinkedIn all rely heavily on AI algorithms to rank and recommend content. The goal is to keep everyone scrolling on the platform and prevent them from leaving the ecosystem while guiding their decisions or choices. So it's time to collectively ask whether we are OK with big tech influencing our behavior.
Users on every platform shame the same request of wanting to prioritize people that we already follow. Instagram stands accused of pushing TikTok style Reels over photos posted by people users follow on their feeds. But similar issues can also be seen on LinkedIn too, with users unable to put content in front of the people that follow them. Ultimately, the problems we are seeing are much bigger than a war of attention between Meta and Tok Tok.
However, if we dare to put down the smartphone and invest more time in understanding who we are far away from the algorithms, we may develop an edge over the platforms that rule over us. For example, many users mistakingly believe their smartphone is listening to them when serving up appropriate ad suggestions when it's the millions of data points generated by their clicks, swipes, and other engagement metrics when endlessly scrolling down newsfeeds.
Amazon knows when you are running out of essential items, Netflix will choose a movie you will like, and Spotify can create the perfect playlist based on your preferences. Elsewhere, every social media platform knows exactly what content will keep you staring at the screen. For these reasons alone, we need to explore how the most significant risk to our well-being is the consequences of algorithms knowing us better than we know ourselves and abandoning serendipity.
It's been five years since Manoush Zomorodi revealed how stepping away from tech and allowing ourselves to be bored would lead to our most brilliant ideas. Without realizing it, we have allowed everything from our feelings and choices to be hacked and manipulated while promoting the illusion of free will. Instead of trying to manipulate audiences and make all platforms the same, maybe it's time to accept that each platform offers something different.
Would it be so bad if big tech celebrated the differences between the likes of Instagram or TikTok instead of trying to make everything the same? The news that users collectively had the power to force Instagram to roll back its TikTok-style changes sends out a massive message of hope for the future. You just need to ask yourself, are you using our smartphone, or is your device using you?
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